TED 2012: Glass Half Full or Half Empty – TED Style

Day 2 at TED ofcourse did not disappoint – how could I even think it would. What did surprise I think all of us (probably with the exception of Chris and the TED team) was the stark contrast between two brilliant talks.  These two discussions presented a very different view of our collective future. This was the “how full is the glass session”

First up was Paul Gilding – former CEO of Greenpeace.  Paul’s basic premise was that we are already beyond the point where the planet can sustain us and that in order to support the economy over the next few decades we will need 1.5x the earths resources to do so.  Essentially his talk was a call to arms stating that a “crises is a terrible thing to waste” (reminded me of Rahm Emanuel comments about the economic downturn).

Paul knows what he is talking about, is a great speaker and his talk had some good facts – in summary it was depressing !

But here comes the ying to Paul’s yang.  Next up was Peter Diamandis – founder of the X Prize and self titled space activist.  I had known of Peter ofcourse but had never heard him speak – he is a powerful and passionate speaker.  Peter view of the future was not only a full glass, but I would say an overflowing glass.  He talked of abundance, he talked of all the incredible positive changes that have occurred over the years, mortality, technology, standard of living etc.  His basic view was that we tend to focus on the negative because the media focuses on the negative but we have an incredible abundant future that we can shape.  To be fair, he did not ignore the problems of the current like global warming, population growth etc. but be just said we will not only survive but thrive in the future.

So by this time I was feeling much better about the world and the future.

These are two very different view of the world and our collective future – I don’t think one is right, or one is wrong, though I personally gravitate towards Peter’s world view – maybe because I have more hope in humanity or maybe because it is easier to feel good about the positive scenario.

I would encourage you all to view both talks which are now live on TED.com Here are the links Peter Diamandis – Abundance is our Future and Paul Gilding – the Earth is Full

Make up your own mind.

As usual I would welcome your comments or input.

Zia.

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TED2012 Day 1 “LittleBits” for big dreams

Here we go again, TED 2012 started yesterday in Long Beach. I decided this year to do a short blog post every day on the talk or conversation that most inspired me.  Yesterday we had the amazing TEDFellows make their presentations.  Wonderful to see these ideas being presented in such a passionate and clear way.  There were many great presentations but the one that struck me most was by Ayah Bdeir –  Founder of LittleBits . Essential LittleBits is concept where Lego meets engineering.

My younger daughter is a fascinated by building Lego models – but honestly there are just so many Pirates of the Caribbean ships you can build.  We need to find more interesting ways in which our children can experience the joy of building new things.  LittleBits create a fun, creative and powerful new way for kids to learn how to build great new products.  Here is how the LittleBits team describes what they do

“Just as LEGOs™ allow you to create complex structures with very little engineering knowledge, littleBits are simple, intuitive, space-sensitive blocks that make prototyping with sophisticated electronics a matter of snapping small magnets together. Each bit has a simple, unique function (light, sound, sensors, buttons, thresholds, pulse, motors, etc), and modules snap to make larger circuits. With a growing number of available modules, LittleBits aims to move electronics from late stages of the design process to its earliest ones, and from the hands of experts, to those of artists, makers, students and designers.

True to form the TED team included a LittleBits starter kits in our bag of goodies. Even though there were only a couple of pieces to connect I was fascinated by the simplicity of the parts and how they connected.

Here is a great video showing how to build and have fun with LittleBits. Congratulations to Ayah and her team for creating this great product.

As usual, your comments and thoughts are welcome.

Zia

A Growth Strategy for Yahoo – the (Social) Enterprise ?

Yahoo is a company that has always intrigued me.  Over the past few years we have all read about the issues facing Yahoo – lack of a clear strategy, management challenges, the on again off again romance with Microsoft and a stock price that has gone from about $35 about 5 years ago to $16 today. And even todays stock price has built into it a significant value from China’s Alibaba.

Clearly Yahoo needs a growth strategy. So here is the “Right Question”  Should Yahoo develop and execute on a strategy to provide a comprehensive set of services for the enterprise ?  I think they should seriously explore this as an option.

Lets review what some of the current trends are in enterprise software – let me throw out some buzz words – cloud computing & SAAS, social media in the enterprise, social CRM, crowdsourcing, structured and unstructured data, Enterprise 2.0 and so on. In essence, many of the innovations in the enterprise are being driven or inspired by innovations in the consumer web.  This is the core of the Enterprise 2.0 approach.

On one hand you have the pure consumer focused companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. On the other hand a new generation of enterprise focused companies are extending these new approaches and seeking to integrate them into the enterprise, SocialCast, Yammer, Ning, Jive etc.

Now lets take a look at Yahoo.  Despite its challenges the company is still a consumer technology leader.  Some ideas – if a consumer online store – Amazon – can create the leading cloud platform for the enterprise  Amazon EC2 then why cannot Yahoo leverage its data center and web management expertise to provide an enterprise cloud infrastructure and apps.  Yahoo Finance is a strong product and has interesting potential to be connected with other enterprise apps to provide integrated structured and unstructured information.  Yahoo knows how to build communities (maybe not as good as Facebook) but still good enough.  Yahoo can be a strong player in providing social media capabilities for the enterprise.  You can even consider integrating Yahoo Jobs into enterprise HR systems to provide an end 2 end business process for talent management.

I know that Yahoo has considered some of these options in the past and considered partnerships with enterprise software firms – but these plans never took off and the company focused on its consumer roots. Maybe some of these ideas are currently being discussed in the company – I hope they are.

So I don’t know if a more enterprise focused strategy (to complement the consumer work) is a viable option for Yahoo at this stage but I think it is certainly something that the Yahoo management should explore carefully – certainly if there is any truth to a private equity buyout of Yahoo this should be part of the strategy.

As usual, I appreciate your thoughts and comments – especially from current and past Yahoo employees and experts.

Thanks,

Zia.

Changing How We Buy Enterprise Software !

I recently looked up the definition of Enterprise Software in Wikipedia and saw the following description: “Enterprise software, also known as enterprise application software (EAS), is software used in organizations, such as a business or government, as opposed to software chosen by individuals.”

The first part of the definition seemed good enough. It was the second part that struck me.  Enterprise software is something other than “software chosen by individuals”.

So here is the problem.  Enterprise software is usually purchased by the IT department and the Office of the CIO but is used by the average business or general user.  Now there are good reasons why the IT department needs to be involved, compatibility, integration, security, scalability etc. etc. etc.  However the voice of the end user seems to play a much smaller role than the case should be – it is not always “software chosen by individuals”.

So this is what creates the principal – agency problem in the purchase of enterprise software. The “Principal” (the IT Department) is supposed to fully represent the interests of the “Agent” (the end user or individual) and purchase software that always fully meets the needs of the end user – this often does not happen as evidenced by frequent complaints from end users.

So how can we solve this problem – how can those who are the primary users of business software gain more power to control what software is purchased by the IT department on their behalf.  Here are some logical suggestions.

1- The budget for enterprise software purchases should be controlled by the business units. This may seem like a radical suggestion (though it is tried sometimes) and has potential issues.  However, I am a strong believer in the theory that those who are most impacted by a decision should own the resources that dictate that decision.

2- A software decision team of 5 should make the decision – 3 users, 1 IT & 1 Finance Representative. The number can be different but my point is that the decision should be weighted towards the voice of the end user.  Now before some of you quickly point out that the end users don’t have all the knowledge or skills to make a decision – you can simply manage this by IT selecting from a list of solutions pre-approved by the end user representatives

3- Conduct a minimum 3 month pilot with at least 5% of the users. Yes I know this can be expensive, but vendors may want to consider having demo systems that can actually be used by potential users.  Nothing like actually using the software to determine if it will do the job. If it is possible to have two parallel demo systems in place by competitors that is even better.

4- Have minimum user experience ratings as part of the acceptance and payment criteria. One of the challenges of non-SAAS software is that once you have purchased it you are stuck with it whether you like it or not. Having a payment schedule over a year that partially rests upon user “happiness ratings” may be a good idea.  For SAAS software you could argue this is built in as you can stop paying after a couple of months if you don’t like the software.

Now before my vendor friends get upset that any or all of these suggestions will make the sales process longer and more complex I would say the following – the enterprise software industry has to finally realize that the “customer” is not a faceless corporate entity or even the IT department – it is the end/business user that will use the software on a day to day basis.

If you make the end user happy – you will sell more software – it is as simple as that.

So the “Right Question” is what can we do to ensure that the needs of end users are not only met but their wildest expectations are exceeded.  This is what drives consumer software and this is what should drive enterprise software because we are selling to the same people !

As always I appreciate your comments and input on this post.

Thanks,

Zia.

Pareto and Software !

 Vilfredo Pareto is one of my all time hero’s.  His famous 80/20 rule has on numerous occasions saved me a lot of time and effort.  It is actually quite incredible how often this simple rule that 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes shapes our thinking and our actions. 

It is equally incredible how often we ignore this powerful theory and continue to hope that the results will be different if we only keep throwing resources at a problem.  The reason I wanted to invoke the memory of Pareto and his famous principle was to explore its application towards the benefits we get from software solutions.

Now I am a firm believer in the benefits of software and how it can and does improve our lives, our businesses and our global economy.  But here is the Right Question:  At what point do additional improvements or added functionality in a software product make little or no difference in enabling a user to get his/her job done.

Let’s take MS Excel as an example.  I would consider myself a moderately sophisticated user of Excel.  I have been using Excel for many years especially during my time as a investment banker.   Excel was first released in the mid- 1980’s so it has been around for over 25 years.  There have been significant improvements in Excel since those early days in user experience, functionality, integration with other programs etc.

But here is the issue. I cannot quantify this but I am pretty sure that in my best Excel moments I do not use more than 10-15% of Excel’s vast capabilities.  Yes there are probably some people who use maybe 30-40% but it is more likely that the vast majority use only a small fraction of its formidable capability.

Now let’s look at an example from the world of enterprise software – in particular CRM (Customer Relationship Management software).  Now the only goal of CRM is to drive sales in a cost effective manner.   There should be no other objective for deploying CRM software.  If your company does not have CRM software you can certainly benefit from CRM software at the appropriate stage of scale (no a two person company does not need CRM they just need a piece of paper and a pencil !).  But similar to my example of Excel, at what point do you already get the 80% benefits from CRM software ? Is it at the first purchase, is it on release no. 4,  or do you ever get there ? 

I don’t know the answer and many will rightly argue that “it depends”.  This is always a difficult argument to win because it is a powerful argument – especially when you don’t have the courage to make a decision.  But as an executive or as a technology professional we are paid to make decisions not live in a land of “it depends economics”. 

So here is my assertion.  The right software can play a critical role in driving growth and managing costs for any business – here I have no doubts.  However, I would also argue that it is more important to have a broader and integrated technology footprint than to go deep (read deploying new versions) in any specific functional category.  So, better to have an integrated suite (eg. CRM, financials, supply chain, procurement, HR, mobile workforce etc.) than to buy the version 4.0 of any specific product.

If Pareto is right – and he almost always is – we probably use only 20% of any given software application capability to generate 80% value created. Interesting thought.  

I am sure many will disagree with me and I look forward to the comments and input.

Regards,
Zia.

What “Togetherville.com” can teach grownups !

I am pretty excited about the launch of Togetherville.com – the new online community for kids under 10.    As any of you who are parents of young kids know the technologies of today have created a whole new set of challenges for those of us trying to raise children in a safe and healthy environment.  While technology opens up a range of amazing opportunities for children it does pose daunting challenges around keeping kids safe online and exposing them to age appropriate content.

I am a strong believer in the benefits of social media, but have found that the privacy challenges of sites like Facebook  provide an uncomfortable level of security for children. With Togetherville you can create in essence a private community of children and adults that know each other and can therefore interact with peace of mind. Congratulations to the founders Mandeep Singh Dhillon and Raj Singh Tut for a great idea. Ofcourse yet again my friend Reid Hoffman has managed to support another potential killer app !

As I looked at Togetherville I was led to explore what this new venture could teach us grownups as we explore the future of technology.  My thoughts led to two insights that build on the approach followed by Togetherville.

First, I think online privacy violations are reaching unsuitable levels.  My challenge is not with situations where you knowingly give up information if asked.  My challenge is that more often than not privacy settings are opaque and difficult to understand and across sites there is no standard way to set a desired level of privacy. 

I think a partial answer to this lies in setting up a “universal online privacy standard” – same setting choices, same levels, same implications on privacy across all websites. Is this likely to happen, probably not, but it should.  Maybe even have a unique privacy setting attributed to you as a person that carries along with you as you surf the web and dynamically adjusts the settings of a website as you visit it.

Second, there is no effective way to manage age appropriate content exposure.  Online filtering programs work to some degree and have gotten better over time, but are far from be 100% effective.  I dont think you can or should control what people put online, but we need to find better ways to manage its exposure – this is especially true for video content (either user generated or professional).

So my solution to this challenge lies in open source and the movie rating system.  We clearly dont want a central authority telling us what we can and cannot watch and we also dont want them to a central authority to rate online content as they do for films (eg. PG13, R etc.).  However, I believe it would be interesting to explore an approach that provided “crowd sourced content rating”.  So for example, each website or piece of video content could have a tag that a user could provide input on (eg. 20 people rate a video as PG13, 600 at R – which would then provide some guidance to users and a better filer mechanism).  ultimately parents and kids make personal choices on what to watch, but at least such a system would provide a universal guide and benchmark to make informed decisions.

I believe by better addressing the issues related to online privacy and content the benefits of the internet can be more effectively consumed by both children and adults.  The problems will never be solved to our complete satisfaction (as they are not in the real world either), but more tangible progress can and should be made.

As usual, I welcome your comments and insights.

Zia.

Your “Experiencing Self” vs. Your “Remembering Self” and the Implications for Software Design !

I have been attending TED for a couple of years and again this year was amazed by the speakers and their insights.  For those of you not familiar with TED I would suggest that you visit the TED website  where you will find a treasure chest of the most amazing talks on a broad range of subjects – I guarantee that you will be inspired.

TED 2010 did not disappoint – far from it.  Several talks inspired me personally but there was one that stood out for its simple yet profound insight – Daniel Kahneman’s talk on “The Riddle of experience vs. memory”.  Widely regarded as the world’s most influential living psychologist, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel in Economics for his pioneering work in behavioral economics — exploring the irrational ways we make decisions about risk (TED description).  I have the deepest respect for people who can take the most complex of subjects and explain them in the most simplest of ways – this is was Daniel was able to do.

Now I will certainly not try to summarize or fully explain Daniel’s talk in this blog – for that I suggest that you visit the TED website to listen to the talk first hand.  Let me though try and provide you with the basic premise of his talk.  Daniel talks about  the “confusion between experience and memory: basically it’s between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life”.  He provides several examples of the difference between the two. In one example Daniel talks about a person who listens to 20 minutes of glorious symphony music yet at the very end there is a dreadful screeching sound.  In reporting this incident the listener said that the screeching sound had “ruined the whole experience”.  Yet, as Daniel notes, the experience had not been ruined – ” What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. That counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.”

“What this is telling us, really, is that we might be thinking of ourselves and of other people in terms of two selves. There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It’s the experiencing self that the doctor approaches — you know, when the doctor asks, “Does it hurt now when I touch you here?” And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it’s the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “How was your trip to Albania?” or something like that. Those are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self and getting confused between them is part of the mess of the notion of happiness. Now, the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memories –it starts immediately. We don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story. ” (quoted text is an excerpt from transcript of Daniel Kahneman’s 2010 TED Talk)

Implications for Software Design:  Daniel Kahneman’s talk and insights provide important lessons for the technology industry.  I think that we in the technology industry – especially the enterprise software industry – have forgotten how  important it is for users to be happy when using our software products.   Consumers take for granted that the software product will deliver on the basic function that it is designed to achieve – complete a purchase request, format a document or manage a supply chain.   However, all to often the software is difficult to use, not intuitive and requires too many steps to complete a simple task.

If you view Daniel’s full TED Talk you will note that in essence what he is saying is that your memory of a particular situation or event  matters more than the experience of that event or situation.  This insight can have important implications on how we design software to ensure that the memory of the use of the software is positive – even if the experience during the use was painful.  Maybe Apple had this figured out a long time ago !

I welcome your thoughts and ideas on this topic.

Thanks,

Zia.

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